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Are Papua New Guineans racist?


KEITH Jackson was good enough to publish a provocative article of mine a few weeks ago called, ‘Are Australians racist?

It was intended to stimulate discussion, which it did, with an excellent rejoinder from Phil Fitzpatrick.

So it seems only fair to turn the question around to the other country in the equation – Papua New Guinea.

So are Papua New Guineans racist?

Let me start with a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Racism – (1) Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior; (2) The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

As with our experiences in Australia, my wife Rose and I have had few experiences in PNG which could be fairly classed as racism. Some specific cases do come to mind, though.

I was having a discussion with some Papua New Guinean friends at the University of PNG when I made some disparaging comments about polygamy, the treatment of women and the extent of corruption.

I was met with the reply, “You don't understand the Melanesian way."

Well, maybe I don't and this was not racism but, when used as a rejoinder to anyone who criticises PNG society, I think it borders on racism.

This was followed by another fellow saying, "But you are a whitie - you don't have the right to criticise us."  Now that's also borderline racism in my book (and from a man who gained a Commonwealth scholarship to study at Cambridge).

Another time I stopped a man at the local market from bashing a woman in the face with a water bottle. I called him out, saying, "You must never treat a woman like that!" He replied, "She's my wife, I can do whatever I like. You are a stupid white man and yu no savi."

And then there was the time the lapun aunties who visited us after our marriage and insisted on calling me "masta". I said they should never call anyone that as the good book says “call no man master”.

This is perhaps reverse racism. Perhaps they can be forgiven because of their age and historical background, but it was an embarrassing moment.

And good old Joe who I worked with, showing me some historical books, said, "These are from what we call 'taim bilon masta', but never say that".

I do not know if these examples are really racist or an example of a racist legacy left by a colonial power which practiced segregation and would not let local people into many of its social and sports clubs. This is an historical fact, an historical artefact which was standard in those days.

But there is another thread in PNG which appears racist - the mistrust and prejudice against people from other provinces.

Bougainvilleans call people from the PNG mainland 'redskins'.

A Mt Hagen taxi driver advised me not to trust women from Alotau, as “they fly in the night and turn your mind by witchcraft”. 

Each province seems to have its own suspicions of people from beyond its borders.

Is this racism? You be the judge.


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G Habuni

Yes Papua New Guineans are not only racist but we are regionalist. Because of the diverse cultures of PNG, each region has something negative about the other region.

The country may say its united but there's a lot of friction from each region against each other, especially in the urban centres.

You can see that in the news. Fights between Highlanders and Morobeans, for example, and its only getting worse. Soon PNG will be separated.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It makes you think that racism might be a natural trait of all people Peter. From the dumbest redneck to the smartest and best educated.

In that sense it comes across as a form of defence, possibly engendered by that 'fear of the other'.

A lot seems to depend on its delivery. Those old aunties were either calling you 'masta' because of their age or because of their wicked sense of humour.

We had an Assistant District Commissioner in Hagen who referred to all of the Cadet Patrol Officers as 'masta'. It was a way of putting us in our place, I think. Another one used to refer to us as 'taubada'.

Taken as a word to simply describe a white male it's pretty harmless but if you attach a sense of superiority to it then it becomes offensive.

So, racist nomenclature cuts both ways.

What I think is true racism and the worst kind is racist action. This is the fact of doing something physical to people because they are of different appearance.

This can range from disallowing entry to the Royal Papuan Yacht Club for not wearing a tie or shoes (in a country where ties and shoes are not exactly normal de rigueur) to the activities of the Ku Klux Clan burning people's houses and lynching people.

That's the really dangerous stuff that must be stamped out.

Another form of racism is exciting others to take racist action. This is Pauline Hanson's trademark but other more subtle racists use the same but less raw version.

This might be where racism in PNG really lies. In the activities of people like Kaputin in the 1960s through to the anti-Asian rhetoric of the present.

I think you run a danger in presenting anecdotal evidence of racism without really defining and categorising it.

Finally, while I like to think of myself as non-racist I must admit that there are moments when I act like a racist. Often it is when I am trying to be helpful in explaining someone's attitude to someone else. It is only when I pull myself up that I realise how deeply embedded it is in all of us.

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